Saturday, May 12, 2012

A growing chorus indicts GOP intransigence

Sometimes the charge is leavened with a little bit of obligatory false equivalence -- or alternately, tinctured with partisan outrage. But left, right and center, in this election season of taking stock, a number of seasoned observers are stepping back for a global view of the hyperpartisanship and bad-faith obstructionism that Gingrich brought to Washington and that has become the Republican m.o.

One strong screed of this sort is Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein's 4/27 Washington Post op-ed Let's just say it: the Republicans are the problem, a foretaste of a book they've just published on "the problem."  [Update: David Frum writes of Mann and Ornstein: "Both men have hard-earned reputations for nonideological independence" - link at bottom.] Their brief:
Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.

In the third and now fourth years of the Obama presidency, divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen in our time in Washington, with partisan divides even leading last year to America’s first credit downgrade.

On financial stabilization and economic recovery, on deficits and debt, on climate change and health-care reform, Republicans have been the force behind the widening ideological gaps and the strategic use of partisanship. In the presidential campaign and in Congress, GOP leaders have embraced fanciful policies on taxes and spending, kowtowing to their party’s most strident voices.

Republicans often dismiss nonpartisan analyses of the nature of problems and the impact of policies when those assessments don’t fit their ideology. In the face of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the party’s leaders and their outside acolytes insisted on obeisance to a supply-side view of economic growth — thus fulfilling Norquist’s pledge — while ignoring contrary considerations.
Like many, Mann and Ornstein ascribe the dysfunction in large part to Gingrich, who made an art of "exploiting scandals to create even more public disgust with politicians...and then recruiting GOP candidates around the country to run against Washington," and Grover Norquist, who has bound the party in the iron grip of his no-new-taxes-ever pledge and generated a cancer of compromise-killing pledges.

Next up, the stern signoff of the primaried five-term Senator Richard Lugar, who salted in a few granules of alleged Democratic recalcitrance in a salvo clearly aimed at the GOP ayatollahs who brought him down: 
I don't remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive Presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform, and trade agreements. Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives. If fealty to these pledges continues to expand, legislators may pledge their way into irrelevance. Voters will be electing a slate of inflexible positions rather than a leader.

As I and many others have pointed out, Democrats have been willing to compromise on the issues with which Lugar rounds out his brief.  But we can cut an octogenarian Jeremiah a little slack for softening the salvo aimed primarily at his own party.  His warning below gives he game away (my emphasis):
Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise. If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years. And I believe that if this attitude expands in the Republican Party, we will be relegated to minority status. Parties don't succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues.
Needless to say, if "that attitude" were equally present in both parties, it could not relegate one to minority status.

Finally, joining the chorus today is economist Brad DeLong, who paints the hyperpartisanship as a destroyer of what he describes as a basic economic premise of two-party democracy: that both parties will respond to the gravitational pull toward the policy preferences of the median voter.  He too traces the current distortion to Gingrich:
Republicans when I got to Washington at the start of 1993 decided that they were going to adopt the Gingridge [sic] strategy: oppose everything the Democratic president proposes, especially if it had previously been a Republican proposal and priority. That is not a strategy that would ever be adopted by anybody who wants to see their name written in the Book of Life.

But Gingrich found followers. Bob Dole decided he would rather join Gingrich to try to portray Clinton as a failure. So Bob Dole never got a legislative accomplishment out of his years in Congress. Instead, he got to lose a presidential election. … As my friend Mark Schmitt wrote in his review of Geoffrey Kabaservice’s book about the moderate Republicans, Rule and Ruin, the moderate Republicans were partisan Republicans first and Americans second.
 ..and then brings the indictment up to the present:
Then came Obama in 2009 and 2010. My friends–Christina Romer, Lawrence Summers, Peter Orszag, and company–headed off to Washington to plan a Recovery Act that they thought would get 25 Republican votes in the Senate. It was a squarely bipartisan fiscal stimulus: this tax cut to make the Republicans stand up and applaud, this infrastructure increase to make the Democrats applaud, this increase in aid to the states to make the governors and state legislators applaud. It didn’t get 25 Republican votes in the Senate. It got 3.

On healthcare reform, Barrack Obama’s opening bid was the highly-Republican Heritage Foundation plan, the plan that George Romney had chosen for Massachusetts. RomneyCare got zero republican votes.

On budget balance Obama’s proposals have not been the one-to-one equal amounts of tax increases and spending cuts to balance the budget of Clinton 1993 or Bush 1990. Obama’s proposals have been more along the lines of $1 of tax increases for every $5 of spending cuts. And the Republicans rejected them.
There are of course larger forces at work, as Mann and Ornstein acknowledge -- most notably the polarization that followed the Democrats' embrace of civil rights legislation, which drained most southern conservatives out of the Democratic coalition, creating incentives for Republicans to identify more wholly with the conservative brand and eventually purge their moderates. And most Republicans would doubtless argue that this narrative is a partisan Democratic one; when (usually retired or ousted) Republicans join the chorus, they usually add a Lugaresque both-sides-do-it fillip.  Democrats, meanwhile, are getting increasingly confident in pressing the prosecution. Exhibit A is Obama, who last September "evolved" from attacking obstruction by "Congress" to attacking obstruction by Republicans in Congress, and who also has been quite specific in detailing points on which he was willing to compromise (spending cuts, including to Medicare and Medicaid) and those on which Republicans would not budge (taxes, taxes, taxes).

Update 5/14: Former Bush speechwriter and voice in the conservative wilderness David Frum validates Mann and Ornstein's indictment, adding a compelling contributory cause of GOP extremism:
In good times, we debate whether government should expand programs or cut taxes -- new benefits in either case.

In these times, we are debating whether government should impose large reductions in programs or impose big increases in taxes -- taking from people benefits that they now enjoy.

Human beings will typically fight much more ferociously to keep what they possess than to gain something new. And the constituencies that vote Republican happen to possess the most and thus to be exposed to the worst risks of loss.

The Republican voting base includes not only the wealthy with the most to fear from tax increases, but also the elderly and the rural, the two constituencies that benefit the most from federal spending and thus have the most to lose from spending cuts.

All those constituencies together fear that almost any conceivable change will be change for the worse from their point of view: higher taxes, less Medicare, or possibly both. Any attempt to do more for other constituencies -- the unemployed, the young -- represents an extra, urgent threat to them.

That sense of threat radicalizes voters and donors -- and has built a huge reservoir of votes and money for politicians and activists who speak as radically as the donors and voters feel.
 Update 2, 5/14: With only the flimsiest feint toward equivalence, Chuck Hagel, like Lugar a staunch conservative senator who worked with Obama on national security issues, joins the chorus:
"Reagan wouldn't identify with this party. There's a streak of intolerance in the Republican Party today that scares people. Intolerance is a very dangerous thing in a society because it always leads to a tragic ending," he said. "Ronald Reagan was never driven by ideology. He was a conservative but he was a practical conservative. He wanted limited government but he used government and he used it many times. And he would work with the other party"...

"Now the Republican Party is in the hands of the right, I would say the extreme right, more than ever before," said Hagel. "You've got a Republican Party that is having difficulty facing up to the fact that if you look at what happened during the first 8 years of the century, it was under Republican direction."
 Former Republican Senator John Danforth is on the same page.

Late update, 5/28:  In the original post, I could not remember the name of the longtime Republican congressional staffer who wrote the mother of all indictments of GOP craziness (with an obligatory-for-Republicans "both parties are rotten" fillip). He is Mike Lofgren, whom James Fallows commends to us as "a familiar and highly esteemed figure...[who]spent 28 years as a Congressional staffer, mainly on budget matters, mainly in the defense-and-security realm, and mainly for Republican legislators." Lofgren does not stint to compare the current Congressional dysfunction to that in the Reichstag prior to the advent of Hitler:
It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe. This trend has several implications, none of them pleasant.

In his "Manual of Parliamentary Practice," Thomas Jefferson wrote that it is less important that every rule and custom of a legislature be absolutely justifiable in a theoretical sense, than that they should be generally acknowledged and honored by all parties. These include unwritten rules, customs and courtesies that lubricate the legislative machinery and keep governance a relatively civilized procedure. The US Senate has more complex procedural rules than any other legislative body in the world; many of these rules are contradictory, and on any given day, the Senate parliamentarian may issue a ruling that contradicts earlier rulings on analogous cases.

The only thing that can keep the Senate functioning is collegiality and good faith. During periods of political consensus, for instance, the World War II and early post-war eras, the Senate was a "high functioning" institution: filibusters were rare and the body was legislatively productive. Now, one can no more picture the current Senate producing the original Medicare Act than the old Supreme Soviet having legislated the Bill of Rights.

Far from being a rarity, virtually every bill, every nominee for Senate confirmation and every routine procedural motion is now subject to a Republican filibuster. Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that Washington is gridlocked: legislating has now become war minus the shooting, something one could have observed 80 years ago in the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic. As Hannah Arendt observed, a disciplined minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself.
Whew. Such comparisons often occur to me -- I think of a novelistic representation I read of Japan in the thirties, when extremists were assassinating public officials and judges -- but I repress them  as exaggerated and a little hysterical.  But then, Lofgren worked with had a rinkside seat. Or Reichstag-side. 

P.S. How I found Lofgren, whom I googled in vain, having forgotten his name: Jonathan Bernstein has a fresh post with a similar tally of defectors, prompted by the latest, Michael Fumento, a self-proclaimed prophet who was knocked out by the Heartland billboards associating climate change believers with notorious monsters.  Might as well keep the tally toted up.


  1. there seem to me to be big downside risks to filibuster reform at this point. count me as ambivalent at best. i say prioritize statehood for the district of columbia instead. i mean, bob casey won't back gay marriage. our senate candidates in north dakota and indiana are running on the wrong things. and they'll never run on the right things. we're up against it. prepare to play defense, i say.

    now, if you could get dc statehood and maybe a new jersey splitting into north jersey/south jersey then yes go for upper house majority rule. but until something like that occurs i think you have to hold onto the defensive arsenal we have right now. yes sure it's unfair, the status quo sucks, but i think it could be much worse.

    upper house population representation of north dakota+south dakota equals upper house population representation of california+new york+district of columbia. you have be prepared to play defense. expect to lose the electoral college and the house of representatives often going forward.

    50 exact states is corny. alaska 2 senators, texas 2 senators. it's absurd.

    eliminate filibuster of conference reports?

  2. you can throw Specter's book, Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, a Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing As We Know It, onto the pile too:

    People are... entitled to affordable health care. And to Medicaid and Medicare. And to a Department of Education and an Environmental Protection Agency. Some argue that the federal government's role should be limited to establishing post roads and an army and a navy; the Constitution says nothing about an air force. But inherent in the Constitution is the notion that a civilized society must provide a social safety net.

    The Tea Party continues to wobble the Republican Party, toppling viable centrist candidates, and to damage the country. The movement's antitax, pro-entitlement crusade may have found its embodiment in the irate man who demanded at a town hall meeting, 'I don't want the government messing with my Medicare!'

    And of course he throws in the "extremists" are on both sides crap too.

  3. i say go for the @jbplainblog Superbill! and look to ram as many thru recesses as possible. i like the hand we currently hold and welcome the republic party's government shutdown come october.